By Alistair Lyon
The presumed murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul is an outrage that creates painful dilemmas for the United States and its longstanding but problematic allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia, as well as for Europe.
The key decision-makers in the affair — U.S. President Donald Trump, his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — are all leaders with authoritarian instincts and outsized egos who care little for human rights, press freedom and international law.
Those values are more broadly at stake for Western and other democracies but will be balanced as usual against geopolitical consequences and commercial interests — although any such effort will require extreme contortions given the chilling nature of Khashoggi’s apparent demise.
Khashoggi, a self-exiled former royal family adviser, had backed the social reforms of the young crown prince, popularly known as MbS, but had criticised his high-handed methods — for which he appears to have paid an awful price.
Turkish officials say they have proof, including an audio tape, that he was tortured, killed and chopped up by a 15-strong Saudi hit squad when he visited the consulate on October 2. Saudi Arabia denies this. Indisputable proof has yet to emerge, but circumstantial evidence points to Riyadh.
Trump seems prepared to give the Saudis a free pass, suggesting “rogue killers” could have been responsible and taking the denials of MbS and his father, King Salman, at face value.
Yet of the 15 suspects named by Turkish authorities, several are reported to have links with MbS, and one is a forensic doctor high up in the Saudi Interior Ministry and medical establishment.
Until now, the Saudi leadership has basked in Trump’s favour. Despite occasional bleats about high oil prices and the cost of defending the kingdom, he had placed Saudi Arabia alongside Israel at the heart of a Middle East policy focused on rolling back Iranian influence.
Trump has already argued against any halt to U.S. arms sales to punish any Saudi involvement in Khashoggi’s death, saying this would only destroy American jobs and benefit Russian and Chinese suppliers. He would also be loathe to see Iran benefit from a weakened Saudi Arabia.
Petrodollars buy silence
For more than 70 years, the kingdom has sheltered under a U.S. military umbrella that has guaranteed its security and ensured the flow of Saudi oil to world markets. In turn, Saudi Arabia buys vast amounts of weaponry from the United States, Britain, France and other countries.
The United States and its allies, who reap rich rewards from the lucrative Saudi market, have rarely criticised the kingdom, still one of the world’s most repressive states despite MbS’s reforms.
The crown prince, who sells himself as the man who will transform the Saudi economy and rigid Islamic culture, has exploited this tolerance to an unprecedented degree.
Western leaders, including Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, have actively assisted the Saudis in the disastrous and unwinnable war that MbS launched in Yemen. They barely blinked when the crown prince briefly kidnapped the prime minister of Lebanon. Nor did they call him out for his arbitrary measures to crack down on corruption and dissent at home.
Khashoggi’s fate — unlike that of millions of Yemenis facing war-induced famine — has grabbed the world’s attention and could irreparably damage MbS’s image and the standing of Saudi Arabia.
Yet sending the kingdom into the cold would be fraught with financial and political consequences.
Even Turkey’s Erdogan, for all his wrath, seems reluctant to burn all bridges with a regional heavyweight at a time when he is grappling with economic woes, fighting armed Kurdish groups and seeking to influence the end-game in Syria’s multi-layered conflict.
He has pressed Saudi leaders to explain Khashoggi’s disappearance but has stopped short of directly accusing them of responsibility.
Erdogan is himself a ruthless enemy of independent journalists. In recent years, he has alienated many of Turkey’s friends with his relentless accumulation of personal power, his persecution of opponents and his outbursts against criticism from abroad.
Saudi Arabia at first seemed impervious to Turkish anger and the international furore over Khashoggi, offering only bland denials, coupled with threats of retaliation for any sanctions taken against it and a pointed reference to the kingdom’s “vital role in the world economy.”
Despite a subsequent show of cooperation in launching their own investigation under U.S. pressure and allowing Turkish officials to search the Istanbul consulate, the Saudis are in deep trouble.
Many foreign bankers, businessmen and dignitaries have opted to stay away from next week’s “Davos in the Desert” investment conference in Riyadh, aimed at showcasing MbS’s reform project.
In Washington, Congress is at last showing signs of queasiness over U.S. complicity in the plight of Yemen, by far the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe.
The crown prince’s aggressive policies at home and abroad, a major departure for a kingdom once noted for its sclerotic leadership and immobility, have often come to grief.
Attempts to counter the influence of Shi’ite Muslim Iran in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon have largely failed, as has a damaging feud with Gulf neighbour Qatar.
Saudi Arabia certainly needs change, but whether the crown prince’s top-down, bulldozing reform style can drag the kingdom into the 21st century remains in doubt — particularly if his credibility and prestige are shredded in the aftermath of Khashoggi’s death.
Tottering world order
The outcry over Khashoggi may prompt some Americans to question their country’s embrace of Saudi Arabia. But if the alliance could weather the 9/11 attacks in 2001, when 15 of the 19 suicide hijackers were Saudi nationals, the chances are that it will survive even this excruciating embarrassment.
No one can predict how such a capricious president will act, but it is safe to assume Trump will not reinvent himself as a scourge of dictators or a champion of democratic values and the rules-based international system he has done so much to sabotage.
He is not solely to blame for the culture of impunity that emboldens governments to kidnap or kill their own citizens abroad or perpetrate human rights abuses at home.
Past U.S. presidents have shown the way, from Ronald Reagan authorising the CIA to kidnap suspected terrorists anywhere, to extraordinary renditions and torture under George W. Bush, and remote-controlled death by drone strike under Obama.
Other Western governments mesmerised by the “war on terror” have failed to uphold the values they claim to espouse. Autocratic rulers around the world have eagerly used the same mantra to justify their abuses.
In the second half of the 20th century, just as in the present, realpolitik often took precedence over ideals. But world leaders, however hypocritically, still paid lip service to the principles enshrined in the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Europe, itself divided and troubled by populist movements, seems unable to assume a resolute leadership role to halt the erosion of international law and democratic values, while Trump and the strongmen he admires seem bent on tearing up what remains of the rule book.
Khashoggi will not be the last to suffer the consequences.
Alistair Lyon is former Middle East diplomatic correspondent for Reuters. During three decades at the news agency, he covered conflicts as well as political and economic news in the Middle East and beyond. He began in Lebanon and headed bureaus in Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan/Afghanistan and Egypt/Sudan. He spent five years in London as Middle East diplomatic correspondent and five in Beirut as special correspondent, Middle East.